$25,000 Compact SUV Shootout: Results

A quick reminder on the judges:

  • David Thomas, managing editor, Cars.com
  • Bill Jackson, senior editor, Cars.com
  • Jennifer Geiger, editor, Cars.com
  • Fred Meier, automotive editor, USA Today
  • Brian Robinson, producer, "MotorWeek"
  • Nicholas and Erin Ravelingeen, parents of two who are eager to replace their 2001 Chevrolet Tracker

Here's how the score broke down: 75% of the total was based on the experts' scores; 15% from the family's scores; and 10% was based on fuel economy. To help you make your own comparisons of these SUVs, we’ve pulled together a list of what you get for $25,000.

It was evident when the smoke cleared that all six of these compact SUVs were strong contenders, each in its own way. With a firm $25,000 price point, consumers could get many useful features, but no one SUV had all of them. The top three finishers were extremely close in scores, which is a testament to how hard it was to pick a winner in this class. If you're in the market for a compact SUV, focus on your top concerns, and certainly one of these will work for you.

No. 6 2013 Ford Escape, 693.5 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Ford Escape)

What they liked: Even though the Escape came with fewer features than its competitors (our broker got us a no-frills base version, but we couldn't have gotten a different engine without topping our $25,000 maximum price), as a driving machine, it won over more than a few of our reviewers.

"The Escape's 2.5-liter feels spirited from a stop and has plenty of midrange punch," Geiger said. Jackson agreed: "The Escape excels in the vehicle dynamics category — the combination of ride, handling and acceleration — by managing to feel both composed and relaxed." Now, the new Escape ditches the pickup-truck look and feel of the previous generation, and that "unique" look (as Robinson said) appealed to our family testers, too.

"I like this shape much more than the old one." Erin said. "The old one wasn't even a contender because of the shape." One area of concern for several judges was the look of the second-row seats, but Meier discovered that "the thin-looking rear seat has a reclining back, and it is surprisingly comfy and roomy for two." In addition, Thomas noted that the "the cargo area is quite large with a low load floor."

What they didn't: Here's where the no-frills come to roost. The "2.5-liter engine [is] not nearly as nice as the available EcoBoost engines," Robinson said, but he added: "To get the Escape that I would actually want to own, I'd be pushing 30 grand, and at that point, I'm looking at bigger vehicles."

For Geiger, "the cabin is a disappointment: large, uneven panel gaps are obvious; hard plastic surfaces abound; and chintzy fabric makes the seats feel and look budget-grade." As usual, our Shootouts are about families and she noted a big fail in the second row: "There are no rear cupholders (except for the door-panel cubbies) and there's only one seatback pocket." Meier agreed. "There's just not enough useful storage for this segment." Clever underfoot storage in rear seats can't make up for the tiny console bin, lack of cubbies."

For Thomas, his biggest complaint was one we're really feeling in a steamy Midwestern summer. "Someone will have to walk me through how the air-conditioning vents work. They don't shoot air in the direction you think when adjusting them, and there are two above the HVAC controls that shoot air only toward your lap. I had a hard time getting comfortable on the longest driving portions of my test." Meier felt his own pain in a sensitive location: "The front seats are not rump-worthy for a long drive."

The verdict: "The base model is a black-plastic austerity plan," Meier said. "You have to pay more to get the real redesign, including new state-of-the-art engines."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 22/31 mpg city/highway; we observed 27.4 mpg combined (the second lowest mpg tested).
  • 68.1 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats (the second highest amount of combined cargo space in comparison)
  • Auxiliary input for audio system
  • Reclining second row
  • Only vehicle tested with wheel covers
  • Only vehicle tested without Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity
  • Floor storage compartment in second row
  • No safety data available from NHTSA or IIHS yet

2013 Ford Escape Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $23,295
Monthly payment: $479.16*
Cheapest car in Shootout

Find a 2013 Ford Escape near you

No. 5 2012 Hyundai Tucson, 721.5 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Hyundai Tucson)

What they liked: Clearly, all of the judges enjoyed how much they got for 25 grand. "Great value," Geiger said. "At this price point, we were able to get some pretty nice features: heated leather seats, a power driver's seat, hill descent control and satellite radio." "The price starts under 20 grand, and by the time you get to 25, you've got a ton of features for not a lot of price," Robinson added. "Amazingly well-dressed for the price," Meier noted. "It delivers on Hyundai's reputation for value for your bucks."

Using those features was a little easier for Thomas in the Tucson: "Give me the Tucson's straightforward tech over the Mazda's touch-screen any day. Scrolling through iPod playlists, synching your phone and making calls was intuitive and natural."

Of course, part of the equation is the driving. "The Tucson springs away from stoplights and has decent passing power," Jackson said. "Handling was top-notch in the Tucson," Thomas said. "It was one of the few crossovers that I could take at full speed through tight turns. For the family, with its 11-year-old SUV, the SUVs in this Shootout were revelations, and the Tucson was no exception.

"This one and the Mazda never would have made it" onto their shopping list. "This really feels beautiful," Nick said. "I'm really surprised by this car," Erin added. The heated leather seats were something "we didn't think we could get at this price," Erin said.

What they didn't: Where the family saw beauty in the Tucson's design, Robinson saw "ugly exterior styling." Many of the experts' complaints revolved around a slew of issues.

"Some of the controls feel cheap and light," Jackson said. "Road noise and tire roar in the Tucson are hard to ignore, making it one of the loudest SUVs in the class," Geiger said. "There's no hiding the fact the cargo area is small," Thomas said, a view that Robinson shared. Thomas continued: "It's too small for my family dog — let alone what we pack for a road trip — and it has a really high load-in height." For Meier, the "lack of visibility at the rear corners makes you see the value of backup and blind spot warning systems."

The verdict:
"The Tucson remains an excellent option in the class," Thomas notes, "but the class has gotten much tougher very quickly."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg city/highway; we observed 27.6 mpg.
  • Heated leather seats (only vehicle tested with feature)
  • Most-expensive vehicle of the Shootout
  • 55.8 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 25.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats (the smallest cargo area behind the second row amongst the competitors)
  • Roof rack
  • Five-year/60,000-mile new vehicle warranty, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty (tied with Kia for the longest warranty)
  • Power driver's seat
  • Satellite radio
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012

2012 Hyundai Tucson Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $25,820
Monthly payment: $531.10*
Difference from cheapest car: $51.94 a month

Find a 2012 Hyundai Tucson near you

No. 4 2012 Chevrolet Equinox, 740 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Chevrolet Equinox)

What they liked:
"Being the biggest one in the group, obviously there's lots of cargo space, but even more importantly, there's lots of small-item storage up front as well," Robinson noted. "The interior has an 'almost-premium' feel."

Jackson, a triathlete, picked up on that the Equinox "was the only SUV where I felt I could take a road trip in the second row thanks to the sliding rear seats. There's a huge second row and a large cargo area, too; most SUVs in this class make you choose one or the other." Meier called that sliding second row a "why can't they all do it?" feature.

For Geiger, the Latch anchors were a winning point for the Equinox. "They rank among the best I've ever used. They're completely exposed and have lots of clearance around them — hooking up a child-safety seat is a breeze."

What they didn't: The driving experience lagged its competitors. "This powertrain needs to go to finishing school," Geiger said. "It's slow, loud and the transmission's shifts are clunky and oddly timed." Robinson concurred: "The engine, while adequate in power, has a very rough feel to it." The family had a hard time with the concept of an Eco button. "When would you use that?" they asked. The idea that the transmission adjusted electronically for better fuel economy didn't impress them.

It wasn't all about the engine, though. "On the highway the Chevy was definitely the loudest of the six with lots of road noise," Thomas said. "The seats did not provide enough support, especially for my thighs," Jackson found. And the stereo sent Meier off on a mini-rant. "The Equinox had an unexpectedly good audio with subwoofer at this price — and then there's no USB port for your iPod! Chevy should fire the bean counter whose cost-cutting will turn off those younger buyers you could have wooed with the good sound," he said. "Worse, putting a white plate in the black console reminds you where the USB would have been if you'd just paid more."

The verdict: "The Equinox is bigger than the rest of these SUVs, so it's very roomy inside, and it has one of the best rides of the group," Robinson said. "It's a great overall package that could just use a little more refinement in the powertrain."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg city/highway; we observed 27.1 mpg combined (the lowest mpg tested)
  • 63.7 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 31.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012
  • Power height adjustment for driver's seat
  • Sliding, reclining second-row seat

2012 Chevy Equinox Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $24,355
Monthly payment: $500.97*
Difference from cheapest car: $21.81 a month

Find a 2012 Chevrolet Equinox near you

No. 3 2012 Kia Sportage, 774 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Kia Sportage)

What they liked: "Getting a full navigation system with an upgraded stereo at a price in the middle of our range was a huge win for Kia," Thomas said. "Plus, the stereo sounded better than the rest, too."

Erin also liked the nav system: "It feels really high-end." That wasn't the only advantage. "The Sportage definitely has an attitude," Geiger said. "Its exterior styling breaks the compact-SUV mold; it's the edgiest-looking one of the bunch.  It also gets some brownie points in the storage department. A deep center console, coupled with under-floor storage with separate bins in the cargo area, mean there are plenty of places to stash stuff."

"The Sportage has the crisp handling of the mechanically similar Hyundai Tucson," Meier said, "but its good ride and quiet interior are amazingly better than its stablemate." Jackson also liked its "immediate engine response," and the family raved about its spaciousness. "It's really roomy," Nick said after feeling cramped in the Tucson.

What they didn't: While some experts liked the aggressive styling, "that stylish high belt line may make shorter folks claustrophobic," Meier said, "and they sure won't be resting an elbow on the window sill." He also pointed out that the rakish roof leads to "very limited rear sightlines, and that means you'll need that backup camera and you'll wish for a blind spot alert system."

For Robinson, "the interior quality doesn't seem on par with most recent Kias." "Like the Tucson, the cargo area is too small with a very high load floor," Thomas said. 

And that nav system that everyone raved about? "You've got a great nav system and you install it at an angle leaning backward toward the windshield? That leads to a lot of glare, and when it's sunny out, it is very hard to read the screen," Thomas said.

The verdict: "The sticker price and features wowed me, the family and likely other shoppers. If cargo space isn't a concern, the Sportage will be hard to ignore, Thomas said.

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 22/32 mpg city/highway; we observed 28.5 mpg combined
  • Navigation system (only one equipped as-tested)
  • 54.6 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 26.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats (least amount of maximum cargo space in Shootout)
  • Heated side mirrors
  • Cooling glove box (Only vehicle tested with feature)
  • Backup camera
  • 5-year/60,000-mile new vehicle warranty, 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty (tied with Hyundai for longest warranty)
  • Satellite radio
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012

2012 Kia Sportage Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $24,575
Monthly payment: $505.49*
Difference from cheapest car: $26.33 a month

Find a 2012 Kia Sportage near you

No. 2 2013 Mazda CX-5, 784 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2013 Mazda CX-5)

What they liked: The CX-5 is the first Mazda to shed the “big grin” design language the automaker has been using for the last five years.

“More than one person has described the CX-5 as ‘cute,’ ” Jackson said, even though this is the first Mazda to shed the “big grin” design language the automaker had been using for the last five years. “The interior has the richest look of any in our test,” he continued. “I kept thinking that we had to be in a model that didn’t meet our price level; it looked so nice.” But meet our price limit it did, a feat that Geiger also praised. “Low base prices and high fuel economy mean this car should appeal to penny-pinchers, and lots of features for the price (blind spot warning, backup camera and powerdriver seat) mean they’re getting a good value,” she said.

“I really like it,” Erin said about the interior. “It’s really streamlined but in a good way,” she said. Meier praised the “airy, spacious feel inside with classy trim and seat cloth and the straightforward gauges and controls,” he said. “You expect classy interiors from Mazda and CX-5 doesn't disappoint.”

Beyond that, Geiger favored the second row. “The backseat folds in a 40/20/40 split, which is useful for hauling different combinations of people and cargo. The seats also fold flat with ease, thanks to three cargo-area handles.” One of the reasons the CX-5 scored so high was its outstanding fuel economy. It was more than 2 mpg ahead of its closest competitor.

What they didn't: Part of that great fuel economy was because of, shall we say, reserved acceleration. Looking at the judges' scores, this category likely kept it from the top spot. "The CX-5's 2.0-liter engine has adequate pep from a stop, but it's on the loud side and takes awhile to gather steam," Geiger noted. "That famed Zoom-Zoom wasn't there in the handling department," Thomas said. "While it topped the CR-V and Equinox in that regard, the Escape, Tucson and Sportage all out-cornered it." Worse, Meier said: "The engine's thin power undercuts confidence in demanding situations."

The CX-5's new stereo setup also raised ire. "The info screen looks outdated, and there's a navigation button even though there's no [factory installed] nav," Robinson said.

Compared to the others in the Shootout, the CX-5's Latch anchors weren't super accessible. There wasn't a lot of clearance around the anchors, so the car seat's Latch connector has to be jammed in for it to hook on.

One big point of contention: the clock. The family and a couple of judges could not understand why the clock was placed where it was, and while they all liked the look and layout of the dashboard, they thought the air-conditioning controls and the clock felt as if they were out of a different time period than the rest of the car. "It looks basic, basic, basic," Erin said. She also thought the center armrest was "unusably too low; actually, it's too far back and too low." Husband Nick was not as wowed as the expert judges. "I hate it. I don't know why!"

The verdict: "Mazda really needs the CX-5 to be a winner, and it's poised to be," Geiger said. "The CX-5 should appeal to a wide audience with eye-catching styling, a quality interior, plenty of convenience features and excellent-for-the-class fuel economy."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 26/32 mpg city/highway; we observed 32.8 mpg combined (highest mpg tested)
  • 65.4 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 34.1 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats
  • Power driver's seat 
  • 5.8-inch color LCD display with backup camera
  • HD Radio and satellite radio
  • Blind spot warning system (only vehicle tested with feature)
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012

2013 Mazda CX-5 Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $24,690
Monthly payment: $507.86*
Difference from cheapest car: $28.70 a month

Find a 2013 Mazda CX-5 near you

And the winner is...

No. 1 2012 Honda CR-V, 809 Points

(See the scorecard, the Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Honda CR-V)

What they liked: Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to our winner is that everything that came in our tester was standard for the trim level, and the combination of those features really pleased our judges.

"Even just equipped with the standard tech features, the CR-V shined," Thomas said. "The Bluetooth and USB integration works well with a vibrant color display that's easy to read, and the stereo was one of my favorites." "The CR-V is loaded with convenience features that come standard," Geiger said. "Three of my favorites are the always-helpful backup camera, the cavernous center console box and the easy fold-flat seats with cargo-area release handles. Bonus: This was the only vehicle with a sunroof at this price point." Robinson loved the "great ergonomics and the CR-V's best interior layout."

Perhaps betraying that they haven't been in the market since 2001, Erin and Nick were "totally amazed" by the conversation mirror (most commonly found in minivans) that lets parents check up on kids in the second row. "Mason, look! Mom can see you!" But that wasn't the only thing they liked about the Honda.

They had barely begun their test drive when Erin exclaimed, "It drives like a dream." She also liked the CR-V's size: "This just feels like a car, and the Chevy feels big," she said, with "big" referring to a larger SUV.

What they didn't: The CR-V is one of the totally redesigned SUVs in this contest, but not everyone thought the Honda had improved on its looks. "The rear styling is pretty bad," Jackson said. "It's got the biggest butt of any of the SUVs here. Actually, the front styling ain't so hot, either."

But it's not all about looks. "Handling is where the CR-V showed some chinks in the armor," Thomas said. "When taking corners, driver and passengers leaned more in the Honda than the other contenders." Geiger also had some issues with the driving. "Eco mode is a double-edged sword: I appreciate the potential fuel savings, but the system alters the throttle response and delays shifts points so the CR-V seems lazy," she said.

While many praised the features included in the price tag, Robinson said the CR-V "still trails many others in technological and convenience features such as blind spot monitoring systems, push-button start, etc." Finally, Thomas was bugged by one little annoyance: "Considering how many great cubbies there are around the cabin, I would really like a better place to put my smartphone."

The verdict: "The Honda CR-V is one of the most well-rounded vehicles in this segment. It's a comfortable cruiser with a solid powertrain, a compliant ride and plenty of features," Geiger said. "The brand's history of strong reliability helps tip the scale."

Key Features

  • EPA-estimated 23/31 mpg city/highway; we observed 30.3 mpg combined (the second best mpg tested)
  • 70.9 cubic feet of maximum cargo space; 37.2 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats (largest cargo area in competition)
  • Second-most expensive vehicle of the comparison test
  • Sunroof (only vehicle tested with feature)
  • Backup camera
  • Pandora Internet radio (only vehicle tested with feature)
  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012

2012 Honda CR-V Payment Facts
MSRP with destination fee: $25,425
Monthly payment: $522.98*
Difference from cheapest car: $43.82 a month

Find a 2012 Honda CR-V near you

*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan, 5% interest and 9% sales tax.

© Cars.com 07/23/2012